Priests willing to go to jail to uphold confessional seal

Catholic priests say they will face jail rather than break the seal of confession to report child sex abuse.

The priests are responding to South Australia’s decision to join the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) to create laws to force Catholic priests to break the seal of confession, to report paedophiles to police.

The new laws, which will come into effect in South Australia in October, will see priests who fail to report child abuse to Police facing fines of up to A$10,000 (£5,600).

Bishop Greg O’Kelly, Acting Adelaide Archbishop, says while politicians can change the law, “we can’t change the nature of the confessional, which is a sacred encounter between a penitent and someone seeking forgiveness and a priest representing Christ.”

Changing the law doesn’t affect priests who have “an understanding of the seal of confession that is in the area of the sacred,” he says.

“Canon law lays down that ‘it is absolutely forbidden for a confessor to betray in any way a penitent in words or in any manner and for any reason’”

O’Kelly says the church was not made aware of the change, which was legislated last year, until last Thursday.

The new law forms part of the South Australian government’s response to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse.

The New South Wales Government says it will respond later this month about whether priests would be legally obliged to report confessions of child sex abuse.

“The state will be requiring us as Catholic priests to commit what we regard as the most serious crime and I’m not willing to do that,” says Father Michael Whelan, the parish priest in St Patrick’s Church Hill in Sydney.

“I expect every jurisdiction in Australia now will follow that recommendation and I expect the Church throughout will simply not observe it.”

Whelan says while the Church is not above the law, if the state intervenes on religious freedom and undermines “the essence of what it means to be a Catholic, we will resist.

“The only way they [the state] would be able to see whether the law was being observed or not is to try and entrap priests,” he says.

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